HTML Backgorund Color

  About   /  Seasons   /  Print   /  Tenement Press   /  Shop

Marker





Jay GAO
THE BARON
& HIS VOLCANO




          WINNER OF THE 2022
          DESPERATE LITERATURE
          SHORT FICTION PRIZE 
























Qiu, I escaped the company of the Baron and returned to Hong Kong. All those months stewing in the shadow of his volcano—was that a lifetime ago?

On the plane I picked apart the newspaper shoved down my seat’s side. I recognised nothing. All the columns seemed to shift. The catastrophic blocks of black text and headlines rubbed onto my fingers—I recognised no language. Words kept breaking down before reassembling. Although the countries were picked at random, and their calamities recycled from some great heavenly wheel, every detail on those pages felt charged and subject to change.


            ‡‡


I left the security of the Baron and returned to Hong Kong. All those years stewing in the shadow of his volcano—only now did it feels like I was about to wake from a short nap.

The empty plane was a ghost ship.

Around the invisible mark where we must have crossed silently from Europe to Asia, I had a premonition that our plane, besieged in the air by angelic creatures, would never land. The creatures had faces made from ash. In that vision, I was fumbling for a lifejacket underneath my seat; instead of finding plastic, my fingers pushed into a square of human flesh that parted at my touch like coral. The patterned blue veins on its yellow skin pulsed rhythmically, giving off a luminescence like a creature from the ocean floor.

Even in the dream I put the square of skin on over me. Even in the dream I did not want to die.


            ‡‡


Even in the dream I put the square of skin inside my mouth; even in the dream I did not want to die.


            ‡‡


Even in life I did not want to die. Qiu, I explained, that was why I had to leave the Baron.

I had expected a different weather of welcome after my plane landed at the newly relocated Hong Kong International Airport.

You should know, Qiu said, that events have shifted in your absence.

As she drove me out on the bridge from that reclaimed island—one that had been hooked and dragged from the bottom of the sea, against its will—I noticed a queue of tanks on the bypass, immobile, lined up like a row of dead black beetles.


            ‡‡


You should know, Qiu said, that events have shifted in your absence.

She continued, Yesterday, I met a new patient who suffered from a rare condition called prosopagnosia. He developed it not long after his wife poisoned him with a faulty carbon monoxide heater.

It was as if Qiu was speaking through me towards someone else in the distance.


            ‡‡


You should feel, Qiu whispered, that events have shifted in your absence.

She continued, Yesterday, I met an old patient who suffered from a rare condition called prosopagnosia. He developed it not long after his ex-wife poisoned him with a faulty carbon monoxide heater.

Have you heard of face blindness, she asked.

I shook my head.


            ‡‡


Why do you ask, Qiu said, if events have shifted in your absence?

She puckered her face. Yesterday, I met an old patient who suffered from a common condition called prosopagnosia. He developed it not long after his ex-wife gifted him a faulty carbon monoxide heater. It was an accident.

An accident of love.

Have you heard of face blindness, she asked.

I shook my head even though I had.

A long time ago, Qiu continued, there was a German man who was shot in the head. After recovering quickly it became obvious that he had changed. He struggled to recognise, first, the doctors at the hospital; then he failed to recognise his friends, his family, his wife too, and, much later, the disease evolved to the point that he stopped recognising even his own face in his mirror.


            ‡‡


Have you heard of face blindnessshe asked?

I dared not move.

A long time ago, Qiu continued, there was a Chinese man who was shot in the head. After recovering slowly it became obvious that he had changed. He struggled to recognise, first, the doctors at the asylum; then he failed to recognise his enemies, his family, his first wife too, who had already died a few years earlier from heartbreak. The disease evolved to the point that, eventually, the man stopped recognising even his own face in the reflection of the water in the toilet in his cell.

Was it a woman who shot him? Why do you think it was a woman? Qiu paused. How, exactly, did you survive the volcano?


            ‡‡


Was it a Chinese woman who shot him? Why do you think it was a Chinese woman?

Qiu made sure nobody was eavesdropping before asking, How, exactly, did you survive the volcano?

After we finished lunch I asked her again about her patient. She added hot water to our pot of pale chrysanthemum tea; the grim flower buds bobbed like heads on the surface. I could not shake off the feeling that the Italian restaurant we dined at—that it used to be a bookshop; the more I looked around, imagining shelves instead of tables, and books instead of diners, and words instead of spaghetti, the less certain I was that I had, a long time ago, been in that very spot, reading a book about Italian cuisine.

Qiu, not noticing my confusion, stared out towards the harbour as if she was waiting for some shimmer to appear on its edge.


            ‡‡


Was it a Chinese woman who loved him? Why do you think the shooting was a result of love?

Qiu made sure nobody in the bookshop was watching us before writing a message on a bookmark. How, exactly, did you get away from the Baron?

Ignoring her question I stared out towards the harbour. For some days now, Qiu explained, the streets were filling up with yellow artificial flowers that fell, ceaselessly, from the rooftops of the high-rises. Nobody knew which separatist group was releasing them. An ongoing strike of public services meant that the flowers accumulated like sloughed skin in the cracks on the pavement, bursting through the doorways of our apartments, invading the lobbies of empty hotels and abandoned offices.

I was waiting to see if I could see a shimmer, as fine as pollen, fall from the tips of those skyscrapers across the bay.

After lunch Qiu walked me back to my apartment block between the university and the pressing shadows of the Mid-Levels, occasionally picking off the yellow petals that caught in my black hair. As we hugged she whispered into my ear, You have come out of the well only to be dropped into the pond. Be on your guard. Trust nobody.


            ‡‡


After lunch Qiu walked me back to my apartment block between the park that used to house the university and the pressing shadows of the Mid-Levels, occasionally picking off the yellow petals that caught in my black hair. After we kissed she whispered into my ear, You have come out of the pond only to be dropped into the well. Be on your guard. Trust nobody except for the Baron.


            ‡‡


After lunch I walked back, alone, to my apartment block between the park that used to house the memorial for the university and the pressing shadows of the Mid-Levels, occasionally picking off the yellow petals that caught in my black hair.

Near my feet a large congealed mound of flowers refused to pass through the grating over a drain. I was repulsed by it.

Were the petals real or were they fabric? The more I rubbed the petals between my fingers, the more I struggled to tell the difference between those two textures.

If Qiu were here she would say something like, Does it matter if the petals are real or if they are just bits of torn fabric?


            ‡‡


For a long time I had wanted to leave; I was already plotting a way to escape this city and return to the Baron.

All the people seemed to pass me on the street with an urgency. Was there a curfew Qiu had forgotten to tell me about? They walked through the walls like anxious ghosts. I could sense, still, the invisible fuzz from the neon signs, now unlit, lingering from the hot night before. My ears had yet to pop.


            ‡‡


Were the petals real or were they fabric?

Why do you think the petals are a result of love?

All the people seemed to pass me on the street with an urgency. Qiu texted me about the curfew. They walked through the walls like anxious spies. I could sense, still, the invisible fuzz from the neon signs, now unlit, lingering from the cold night before. My ears had yet to pop. My body refused to correct itself.

If Qiu were here I would have said something like, I want to stay but I know that I will soon be pulled out, restless, too eager to escape, to put myself, once again, in the way of danger.


            ‡‡


Car horns cursed up and down the roads. A woman wailed. The crash of collapsing bamboo construction poles, and then the sirens started. I was too far away to see the accident, but I heard it all from the harbour breeze. More or less.

Was it all here? What was missing?

There was this feeling I could not get away from, that ever since I left the Baron, and stepped onto the plane, that as I sat there, in my seat in the sky, I was inching closer and closer towards a nightmarish version of a future where I never arrived at all.

I was flying overhead in circles, watching the distorted bubbling world through the oval passenger window beside me. I was sat next to the Baron. We were circling his volcano. Although I tried, for many hours, I was unable to loosen that seat belt which held me so absolutely in my place.


            ‡‡


I was flying overhead in circles, watching the distorted bubbling world through the oval passenger window beside me. I was sat next to Qiu. We were circling the island upon which they had just relocated the Hong Kong International Airport. The plane refused to land, and nobody could tell us why. Although I tried, for many hours, I was unable to loosen that seat belt which held me so absolutely in my place.

You should know, Qiu said, how to do this by now.

I shifted uneasily in my seat and waited for her fingers to reach over and unbuckle my belt.


            ‡‡


I shifted uneasily in my seat and waited for her fingers to reach over and unbuckle my belt. I waited for her fingers.









DESPERATE LITERATURE is an international bookshop in the heart of Madrid, founded in 2014. They sell books in English, French and Spanish, working to build a literary community around and through these literatures. They run weekly events with authors from around the world, and in 2019 hosted Spain’s first English language poetry festival. They first launched the Desperate Literature Prize for Short Fiction in 2017. The Prize is an international attempt to recognise writers of innovative and experimental short fiction, with the aim of providing opportunities to all those shortlisted through a publishing and events programme that partners with 14 different literary organisations across Europe.

The 2022 edition was judged by authors Natasha BROWN, Anton HUR, Otessa MOSHFEGH and Joanna WALSH.

A pamphlet collating Jay GAO’s work, alongside all other shortlisted stories, published by DESPERATE LITERATURE, can get got here as a PDF. A print edition will be published in the Autumn months of 2022.




Jay GAO is the author of IMPERIUM (Carcanet, 2022) as well as three poetry pamphlets. He is a Contributing Editor for The White Review. Originally from Edinburgh, Scotland, he graduated with an MFA from Brown University.

          IMAGE— 

A detail from the cover of the Danish
1949 Gyldendal edition of Malcolm LOWRY’s
UNDER THE VOLCANO / UNDER VULKANEN 




Marker

About     Print      Subscribe      Submissions     ︎ 

Hotel is a magazine for new approaches to fiction, non fiction & poetry & features work from established & emerging talent. Hotel provides the space for experimental reflection on literature’s status as art & cultural mediator. The magazine is bi-annual, the online archive is updated periodically.



     

       Mailing List

editors@partisanhotel.co.uk


     




Marker